Review of The Master

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A 1950's-themed drama film written, produced and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams & Laura Dern. A charismatic intellectual hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in post-WWII America. The core is the relationship between the Master (Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie (Phoenix), a twentysomething drifter who becomes the leader's lieutenant. As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.
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After “Battlefield Earth” who ever thought that a film would take scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard seriously ever again? “The Master”, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”, does just that. It neither condemns or justifies the religion but centers on the fascinating struggle of two men.

Joaquin Phoenix’s fabricated mental breakdown is luckily over now and he has thankfully returned to acting as Freddie Quell, a Navy man coming out of World War 2 with PTSD. His life is prone to odd, hostile, and drunken behavior before he climbs aboard the sea vessel of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a writer who has a small family of followers and a lot of big ideas about controlling emotions- like encouraging converts to travel back through their past lives or submit to intense interrogation techniques called processing. These are criticized and called cultish but Freddie seems to respond to them.

So much of this film hinges on the chemistry between Phoenix and Hoffman and even at its unnecessarily long length, the movie still catches fire whenever their together. Hoffman makes Dodd a man of conviction, charisma, and caring but also a volcano of fury when any one of his ideas is put under scrutiny. And Phoenix seems to make every part of this character an unstable mess, from his hunched over appearance to lack of eye contact, to his wild-animal way of lashing out and inappropriate sexual behavior. This is a man whose very soul has been torn to shreds and Phoenix’s approach is top-notch.

Both Freddie and Dodd may be completely insane but it’s Dodd’s continued belief in his own methods and Freddie’s search for his own humanity that ring true. Even if what they’re practicing is bullshit, it’s still one man trying to help another man and the bond that forms from that.